Most parties went for the huo guo – Sichuan hotpot cooked at the table – so much so that the front door had to be kept open for ventilation (although this didn’t stop the smoke alarms going off !). On another day, we might have gone for this but after a tough day at the office, we were happy to go a la carte.
The menus were fully bilingual with selected pictures and I began to order in my wobbly Mandarin but as it turned out the lingua franca of the wait staff was Cantonese ! To the relief of all concerned, I switched to Cantonese to make it clear that we were familiar with Sichuan food and that we could handle the heat.
One of my Sichuan faves is shui zhu niu rou which is called sliced beef Sichuan style lavishly topped with chilli and Sichuan pepper (£8.80) here. Unfortunately, they bought out the rou pian or sliced pork version, if we weren't so frazzled I would have insisted on actually getting the beef but we kept the pork.
As well as steamed rice, sides of water spinach with garlic (£7.80), dan dan noodles (£3.80) and minced pork dumplings with chilli oil (£4.80) were ordered. These were all competently rendered; especially the dumplings which had a home-made feel. Mind you, the chilli oil dressing could've been zingier as could the dan dan noodles.
Neither of us were in the mood for wine and with a couple of beers each, the bill was £35/head including service. However, I did over order for the two of us and the portions were very generous - I ended up taking home the leftover pork and chicken. Analysing our order, I reckon it wouldn't have cost much more in total for a party of four – somewhere in the region of £25/head i.e. pricier than Chilli Cool but cheaper than Bar Shu.
Although there was a cock-up over the beef and the drinks took their time in arriving, the service was above average. I guess this was due to the waiters not being your stereotypical surly-bollocks – banter, charm and good humour are rare qualities in Chinatown so we could forgive any minor lapses.
One issue did gnaw away though and that was the food could've been spicier especially as I had expressly told them that we could handle the heat. However, all became clear when I analysed the bill at home – they have a profiling system detailing 'customer type' and 'spicy hot degree' on the header of the bill
For the record, we were profiled as 'Chinese' customers despite Mr Wine being clearly English (perhaps they took into account his spoken Mandarin, which is far better than mine). Unlike customer type, the 'spicy hot degree' profile was written only in Chinese – we were deemed to be able to handle 'zhong la' or medium heat.
My guess is that if you were profiled as 'English' then you'd be 'xiao la' - literally little heat. This is a bit ironic a most English people I know have a far higher tolerance of heat than the Chinese, especially the Cantonese who by and large are chilli-shy.
Before anyone gets indignant, I am Cantonese and whilst I like my heat, it'd be fair to say that I'm in the minority. My initial reaction was one of annoyance but I did see the funny side later on. That said it'd be better if they dispensed with the profiling and went for 'da la' or big heat as the default.
Verdict: Although the mouthwatering chicken came close, there were no real shockers. Whilst Chilli Cool remains my favourite Sichuan place in London, I'd recommend Red 'N' Hot if you were out and about in the West End. Just remember to insist on 'da la' if you like your heat.
Other Stuff: Red 'N' Hot also has branches in the respective Chinatowns of Birmingham and Manchester.
Update July 2010 - Red 'N' Hot have taken over Snazz Sichuan near Euston. A mini-review can be found on Off The Blog 3.